A decision quietly made by Toronto Community Housing about the Regent Park revitalization project some five years ago was the subject of heated debate at a community meeting in the neighbourhood Tuesday night — as residents sounded off about the possibility of a new developer moving into the area after years spent forging a relationship with the existing one.
It's been nearly five years since the public housing agency's board of directors scrapped an existing contract with the Daniels Corporation, opening up the final two phases of construction to new developers.
But residents say they only learned about the move in the last three weeks — and they're anxious about whether a new developer would share the vision they say they've worked hard to build with Daniels over the years.
"They've been building not only the neighbourhood, but the community itself," said resident Sureya Ibrahim. "If there's something that doesn't work, we tell them what we feel about it, what needs to be done, what needs to be fixed."
'Starting all over again'
That relationship was hard won, says Regent Park Neighbourhood Association member Marlene DeJenova.
"We've certainly argued. We've been at loggerheads. But over time you build relationships … now we'll be starting all over again," DeJenova said.
Regent Park as it is known today began as a transitional community after the Second World War. With its closed-in design and limited access to public transportation and major roadways, it became increasingly isolated over the years, with poverty and crime plaguing the area during the 1980s and beyond.
The revitalization plan got underway in 2005. Five phases of construction were scheduled to be complete in 2025. In 2006, the first phase was awarded to Daniels and by 2009, the builder was given a contract for all of the remaining phases.
But after a new board took the helm in 2011, that contract was scrapped and in 2013, Toronto Community Housing opened the doors for a new developer to take on phases four and five — something residents say they had no idea about.
'We should have come to you sooner'
Kelly Skeith, development director for Toronto Community Housing's revitalization project for Regent Park, acknowledges that was a mistake.
"I recognize the fact that we underestimated the community's emotional pull to the Daniels Corporation," she told CBC Toronto after the meeting Tuesday, adding that she apologized to the community last month saying, "We should have come to you sooner."
Still, she says 2013 would have been too early to talk about phases four and five. After all, at the time they hadn't even broken ground on phase three.
Since the launch of the new phases on April 19, Skeith says, the housing agency has committed to involving the neighbourhood association as well as tenants themselves in both the procurement process and the review of vendor qualifications.
Resident Hillary Connolly welcomes those changes but isn't confident the public housing agency will stick to its word, after failing to communicate the decision to scrap the contract with Daniels.
"I think the real issue isn't which developer we go with, it's that we weren't told."
Residents cautiously optimistic
Vincent Tong, chief development officer with Toronto Community Housing, says the open bid is a requirement of being a public entity, saying anyone can submit a proposal — even Daniels.
"This is the most fair, transparent and accountable way that we can ensure we get the best value not only for our residents in this community but also for [TCH] and the city, in terms of taxpayer dollars," Tong said.
With the agency committing to be more transparent with its decisions, resident Michelle Basha is cautiously optimistic.
"Based on the fact that we are here because we've been left in the dark, it's wait to see," Basha said.
Until then, she and other residents say they plan to hold the agency to account, to make sure it follows through on its promises.
"Right now it's just air in the wind."